Imphal, March 9 (IANS) As the 13th I-League enters the business end of the season, relegation-threatened Neroca will be hosting second-placed Punjab FC at the Khuman Lumpak Stadium on Tuesday.
With just five games to go for Neroca this season, they find themselves occupying the dreaded relegation spot, a point adrift of Aizawl on ninth who have a game in hand.
The reverse fixture in Ludhiana saw Neroca race to a 2-0 lead before veteran Dipanda Dicka’s hat-trick settled the tie for the hosts and nicked the three points. Dicka is one goal away from his 50th I-League goal and could achieve the landmark on Tuesday.
The Orange Brigade have a tricky run of fixtures ahead that could otherwise turn precarious, should they fail to get a result against Punjab. Gift Raikhan’s side will host defending Champions Chennai City next before travelling to northeast rivals Aizawl — a determining fixture for either side in their quest for I-League survival — Quess East Bengal away and Churchill Brothers at home will wrap up Neroca’s campaign.
Coach Raikhan, who has guided Neroca to greater heights before and despite their turn in fortunes this season, still remains the man the Neroca faithful will be relying on to weather the storm. Speaking ahead of the match, he said, “The relegation battle is getting intense, especially with the end of the season knocking on the door. It’s not about Punjab, or Churchill, or East Bengal. It’s about approaching the games as they come and winning because one result can make a lot of difference.
“We are prepared and with three points at home tomorrow, we will be in a good place going forward.”
Punjab, on the other hand, have registered just one win in their previous five outings. The lacklustre run for the Ludhiana outfit sees them just three points clear of Chennai in eighth place in what has been a waterlogged middle stack.
Givson Singh’s stoppage-time penalty denied Punjab all three points against Indian Arrows in Mumbai, a result which has left Head Coach Yan Law thoroughly frustrated.
“Conceding a late goal yet again cost us three points against Arrows, and it was a terrible result for us as we could have added some more pressure on league leaders Mohun Bagan and created a bigger gap between ourselves and the third place,” Law said.
“We need to focus on the next game and play for all 3 points against Neroca. They have made a good few signings in the January window and they have been playing better than the way they played when we met last time in Ludhiana. So it’s going to be a tough game as they are fighting against relegation and we are fighting to stay on top,” he said.